Correcting people’s’ grammer



via Brainless Tales



Who did you send that to?


This sentence is grammatically incorrect. It seems innocuous enough, but it is wrong. What to do?

Should you correct people’s use of who versus whom, misusing literally, or saying nucular? This is an interesting social phenomenon—many people have very strong feelings about correcting other people’s language use. The company Grammarly recently posted a poll to its twitter feed asking:

It immediately struck me: share thought-hold thoughtthis is a total share your thoughts ~ hold your thoughts scenario!

There are times when it is helpful and expected to share your thoughts with others, and there are times when it will be considered rude and could upset people. So when do you hold which thoughts?

First, let’s look at the results:

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 3.05.28 PM.png

via @Grammarly June 1, 2016

It depends wins!

Sometimes “it depends” is horribly unsatisfying. It feels like a cop-out, the easy answer. But it’s the right answer. Perhaps a more pleasing response would be:

It depends on the context.

Context is a hugely helpful concept to think through the whys and whens of social decision making. Autism researcher and educator Peter Vermeulen defines “context” as:

everything in a certain situation (including your knowledge & in the surroundings) that reveals and influences the meaning of something (which can be an object, a behavior, a word)

Vermeulen, Autism as Context Blindness

Some of the comments on the poll attest to this:

Ronda is highlighting that the important contextual factor here is whether other people are around. So a more specific answer might be:

It depends on the context of who else is nearby.

That would mean, if no one else is around, share your thoughts and correct your coworker; if there are other people are around, hold your thoughts.

I’d offer one more contextual factor to consider: your relationship to the coworker. If no one is around, and you correct the grammar of a supervisor, that could be considered rude—and possibly lead to consequences at your job. A new, further refined answer to Grammarly’s question, then, might be:

It depends on the context of whom you’re with, and who else is nearby.

So if you’re alone with a coworker you know well and he says focuses and it should be foci, consider making a quick reference to the correct usage. That’s like sharing you thoughts, a little:


But if the coworker is senior to you, and there are many other people around, it’s probably best to dial it way down and hold your thoughts.


There are certainly going to be other context to pay attention to that inform the decision to share or hold your thoughts:

  • How long have you been at the job?
    • A month? Probably hold your thoughts more often and don’t say the correction.
    • Six years? You might be comfortable enough to share your thoughts more.
  • What kind of company do you work at?
    • A Wall Street firm? Chances are, your coworkers are too worried about the fast-paced nature of selling and buying to worry about a grammatical error. Hold.
    • An online news magazine? Correcting others’ grammar might be the expectation so that errors don’t get published. Share!

In any case, it’s helpful to think about the important context to help you make a decision about how to best strike that balance!

(By the way, should I tell Ronda that she should have used a semicolon or an em dash in place of that comma? Maybe I’ll send her a private message…)

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